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Written by Tom Stienstra

From a perch above a boulder-strewn ravine, we peered with binoculars up canyon walls and across a steep jumble of rocks and dirt for endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.

The arrival of spring in the high country is when Sierra bighorns feast on fresh, water-saturated forage in the front country of the Eastern Sierra Nevada outside Bishop.

A warm, dry breeze pushed out of the north. The scent of sage was in the air. At the mouth of Sawmill Canyon, on a steep mountain face below a towering monolith, we found pockets of greenery amid the rocks. We scanned sections, segment-by-segment, for the silhouette of a Sierra bighorn, attracted there to feed.

“Nothing yet,” I said to Tom Stephenson, our mentor and program leader for the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We know they’re in there,” he said.

Sierra bighorns, he noted, can seem nearly invisible. Their ability to blend against the rock is a defense against predators. When you finally see one, others nearby can suddenly appear as if out of nowhere.

To some, the spike in population also seems to have come out of nowhere. In the late 1990s, about 100 Sierra bighorns were thought to be left on the planet; the latest count was roughly 600. This spring’s count is expected to be lower, Stephenson said, “as a result of heavy snow and mountain lion predation.” But Stephenson said the Sierra bighorn population could sustain its long-term expansion in the next few years and could be relisted from endangered to threatened.

Landmark breakthroughs could help assure that:

Domestic sheep threat: In March, the Mono County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 to reject a grazing lease for domestic sheep near the range of the Sierra bighorn. That is critical because domestic sheep remain the biggest long-term obstacle to recovery, Stephenson said. In the 1850s, when early pioneers arrived to California, thousands of Sierra bighorns roamed the high country, Stephenson said. The pioneers brought herds of domestic sheep, which infected the bighorns with disease, killing them.

Mountain lion threat: For several years, the Mountain Lion Foundation has softened its stance toward the DFW killing lions in favor of protecting endangered Sierra bighorns. Without pushback, the DFW has identified and killed 24 lions that were specifically targeting bighorns in threatened herds. “When there were thousands of Sierra bighorns, the size of the herd could handle occasional predation,” Stephenson said. “When you have a few hundred animals of a species left in the world, every individual becomes important.”

End of a severe winter: In the desolation of the Eastern Sierra, the arrival of spring means more water-filled plants are available, which can lead to better health of ewes and higher survival rates of lambs. “We believe we have turned the tide for the recovery of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep,” said Ginnie Chadwick, a scientist who volunteers with the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation.

The best place to find and see Sierra bighorn is out of the town of Bishop, about an hour south of Mono Lake. From San Francisco, Sacramento or anywhere else west of the Sierra, it can be a mind-bending drive.

The range of the Sierra bighorn includes some of the most foreboding, steep and desolate high country in America.

Over the years, I’ve spotted and stalked Sierra bighorn in several areas. In the Eastern Sierra, I’ve had the best luck up Pine Creek Canyon, the canyons just above the floor of Round Valley, Sawmill Canyon and Taboose Canyon. Another good spot, east of Bishop, is up Silver Creek Canyon on the flank of White Mountain, for a subspecies, the desert — or Nelson — bighorn. For that trip, which includes a creek crossing, a four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance is required.

A new herd was transplanted in 2015 in the Cathedral Range of Yosemite National Park. It takes a combination of backpacking, trekking and rock climbing to get close. Jen Joynt of Berkeley, who won the DFW’s first-place award for best wildlife photo of the year in 2016, said she made the attempt last fall, but was unable to get a photo.

FILE--This is an undated photo of bighorn sheep in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Mt. Baxter, Calif. The animals are on the brink of being eliminated from the Sierra. As of last summer, only about 150 bighorns were left in the entire range. (AP Photo/John D. Wehausen) Photo: JOHN D WEHAUSEN / </p> <p><em>Associated Press / AP
Photo: JOHN D WEHAUSEN / Associated Press

This is an undated photo of bighorn sheep in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Mt. Baxter, Calif. The animals are on the brink of being eliminated from the Sierra.

The best strategy is to go now, as spring arrives in the high country, where vegetation is sprouting in mountain crevices and bushes and small trees are budding and inching out new growth. Sierra bighorn guru John Wehausen, who like Stephenson and Chadwick has a doctoral degree, told me that he measured the physical advancement of spring and that it moves up 60 feet per day in elevation in the Eastern Sierra.

When you arrive, head to the foot of the canyons, find a perch and scan the slopes of the canyons with binoculars. Start by searching for vegetation, even if it appears to be sparse ground-level browse. Do not sweep back and forth at random. Instead pick a small section (as pilots learn when they scan for other aircraft) and home in on that section for your search. When confident there are no Sierra bighorn in that section, move to the next.

On our trip, Liz Siemion, a DFW scientific aide, located a Sierra bighorn sheep on the mountain slope above the far side of Sawmill Creek Ravine, near the opening of Sawmill Canyon.

“You see that one bright, flat rock, about the size of a car, facing us?” she asked. “There’s one just to the right of it, nibbling on a bush.”

We zeroed in. At first, it looked like a big bunch of nothing. Then there was subtle movement and, as if emerging out of the rock, we saw the outline of a Sierra bighorn that was camouflaged against the gray rock.

For a closer look, I switched to a spotting scope, and zoomed in. In the confined field of view, another bighorn suddenly appeared — and then another. In minutes, we went from staring at rocks to verified sightings of 10 Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. In time, the scientists counted 21. The ambitious few can draw within 300 yards, stalk from behind rocks, and free-climb to parallel vantage points for photos. It takes a 300mm to 500mm lens for a photo, said Joynt, and rock-climbing skills to get there.

Most people have never seen a Sierra bighorn, Stephenson said, and the animal’s status and location makes this a world-class wildlife adventure. There was even a time 25 years ago when it was suggested that the last Sierra bighorns be captured and put in zoo-like captive breeding facilities to keep the species alive.

Out in the High Sierra, many of this year’s lambs will be born this month. With increased vegetation from the arrival of spring, there is hope for higher survival rates.

One of the greatest wildlife recovery stories in California history is now at hand.

Tom Stienstra is the outdoors writer for The Chronicle. His outdoors report can be heard at 7:35 a.m., 9:35 a.m. and 12:35 p.m. Saturdays on KCBS (740 and 106.9). Email: Twitter: @StienstraTom

If you want to go

What: Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep

Status: Listed as endangered with roughly 600 remaining in the world. Could be relisted to threatened if present population expansion trends are sustained.

Eastern Sierra, west of Highway 395: Pine Creek Canyon, canyons just above the floor of Round Valley, Sawmill Canyon, Taboose Canyon, for Sierra bighorns.

White Mountains, east of Highway 395: Silver Creek Canyon (four-wheel drive, creek crossing required), for desert bighorns.

Sierra bighorn info: Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation, http://sierrabighorn.org; Department of Fish and Wildlife, www.dfg.ca.gov/snbs.

Lodging, supplies: Bishop, Inyo County; Bishop Chamber of Commerce, (888) 395-3952; http://bishopchamberofcommerce.com.

Distances to Bishop: 40 miles from Mammoth Lakes, 64 miles from Lee Vining/Mono Lake (east of Yosemite/Tioga Pass entrance when open in summer), 171 miles from Carson City, 279 miles from Sacramento, 345 miles from Concord, 364 miles from San Francisco.

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1 day ago

Hmmmmm... thinking about all of the things I'm grateful for...
Happy Thanksgiving, friends!!

Photo by Instagram user @pardonmyfrencheee
#keepbishopsafe #Thanksgiving2020
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Hmmmmm... thinking about all of the things Im grateful for...
Happy Thanksgiving, friends!!

Photo by Instagram user @pardonmyfrencheee
#keepbishopsafe #Thanksgiving2020

Comment on Facebook

FWIW, it's interesting that "Visit Bishop" posts a photo of scenery that's 60 miles away. Just sayin'... but I love this photo! <3

Adorable.....just like Bishop! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone❤️🦃🍁

What a great photo !!

Great picture thanks for sharing 🙂🙂❤❤🦃🦃

Happy Thanksgiving!

See you soon!

Shana Gordon

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1 day ago

Members of the Emmy-award winning CBS show “One Day at a Time” and state health expert Dr. Diana Ramos share important tips and information on how to have safe family holidays in the time of COVID-19. Check it out!

Happy Thanksgiving!!

youtu.be/Tn0VVFnHSkQ (English)
youtu.be/0QCmyWRhF_A (Spanish)
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3 days ago

This is Bishop from the Tungsten Hills looking east. Our little town is almost like an island. We have to travel hours to do most major shopping, or for any major medical issues. For most of us, it is absolutely worth it because we love the Eastern Sierra and although our town is small, our “backyard” is big and full of majestic natural beauty. We know many of you who live far away love this place as well. ❤️

So as you are making holiday plans this year, please remember to protect the people and places you love to play in. We appreciate it!!

Photo by Betsy Forsyth Johnson
#keepbishopsafe
... See MoreSee Less

This is Bishop from the Tungsten Hills looking east. Our little town is almost like an island. We have to travel hours to do most major shopping, or for any major medical issues. For most of us, it is absolutely worth it because we love the Eastern Sierra and although our town is small, our “backyard” is big and full of majestic natural beauty. We know many of you who live far away love this place as well. ❤️

So as you are making holiday plans this year, please remember to protect the people and places you love to play in. We appreciate it!! 

Photo by Betsy Forsyth Johnson
#keepbishopsafe

Comment on Facebook

We were campground hosts at Mammoth & went to Bishop for nice dinners on our days off, get haircuts, do laundry & see dentist. Enjoyed Bishop Mule Days too.. Besutiful area to spend the summer... Had to edit & add Schat's Bakery 💞💞

My first trip to Bishop was 57 years ago and have been back more years than not. I plan to keep coming back until my legs can’t walk the trails anymore. It’s truly a special place.

Wish I could be there. Great place to do star watching. Seem to be extra stars in the sky over there. Wishing you all the best for the holidays. Wish that bakery could deliver. So yummy. Stay well. <3

Loved growing up in Bishop, many fond memories there! I bet the town has changed since 75, but never the scenery!

One of my favorite places to camp don't how many times I've been there but I've been a bunch of times love it over 30times

I love it too! Grew up in Big Pine, worked in Bishop and Big Pine! 😊

best town I ever lived in

A place and time far far away! A place named Bishop, where I was born.

Take care! Hope to see you again next year!

Lived in early 50’s I lived in a mine camp Sheelite till the mud slide, moved to Rovanna To a mine housing . Parents bought a house in Tungsten City, up behind Rocking K Ranch, attended school in Round Valley Lots of memory In the area

Maybe you need to stop Blaming people that travel to the Eastern Sierra for your local problems. Its not really that small of a town and With the tax you get from tourism build a real medical facility and hospital!

Best place to grow up ‼️

Bishop is always one of our stopping points if we're visiting Yosemite and Death Valley. Bishop Creek Canyon, Rock Creek Canyon, Schats Bakery, Jacks, Spellbinder Books, Whiskey Creek- all previous haunts. Once normal travel arrangements return, we'll be back to visit one of our favourite places in the USA.

My Dad grew up in Bishop, he actually worked at the Tungsten mines for awhile before heading to El Paso to go to college. Then the war started and he joined the Army Air Corps . I spent many a summers staying with my grandma Duffy, playing with my cousins in that magical place. Still my favorite place on earth.

I know this viewpoint........magic.

I really miss Bishop and the Owens valley.....

Lived at Hilltop Estates/ Swall Meadows for quite a few years in the late 70’s to the early 80’s. Only place in California that keeps me coming back every couple years.

We would love to move there! Love the area.

Thank you for the words and picture you are blessed to live there xo

Our favorite place to go. Always come to the car show.

Home🇺🇸

To bad its in commiefornia. Love bishop

I remember Lone Pine too. Loved it

Small Town, Big Back Yard. 🥰

Can I have a friend request please

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6 days ago

Flashback to Main Street, 1886. Who would like to escape to this scene?

#LoveBishop #historicbishop
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Flashback to Main Street, 1886. Who would like to escape to this scene?

#LoveBishop #historicbishop

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I will take 1986. Had a cool uncle living there. Free lodging, and his Land Cruiser was available for deep snow drives.

Heck no...especially after I saw the video on "the old western hygiene". Talk about funk and stink! Whew, even the women stunk! Man-o-man....plus add on disease, diet and doctoring! Nope...lol 😆

I wonder if they still had to pose to get the exposure by 1886. Probably not.

Hmmm...1886 in Owens Valley? Was there a Sheriff? Or just a bunch of gun toting fools on horseback.

might be a sale but I will think it is a Halter class in the middle of the street and that will make me happy

Love that picture

I would love it. 🙏❤️🙏

I see Rusty’s!! Lol

It would be hard an cold but very free it would be something to go back in time

Every horse looks so healthy (extra shiny coat).... all that great pasture of the area > Owens Valley!

No thank you. I love Bishop, but I can't imagine living there without AC or a swamp cooler. lol

Even tho these days were hard ,they were free to enjoy great days.

Life was harder back then but better in My opinion.

Looks like a stock sale. If it were today, I would call it a horse show.

A busy place!

Early "Mule Days"?

I would buy that Appaloosa .

I would escape in a second :)

great pic

Right on

Can we visit but not stay?

Me

Great picture

Me toooooooo

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1 week ago

Ahhhh, we sure love sunsets in the Eastern Sierra!! 😍

Photo by John Paul DeRousseau
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Ahhhh, we sure love sunsets in the Eastern Sierra!! 😍

Photo by John Paul DeRousseau

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An amazing picture of a beautiful sky. Thanks for sharing 🙂🙂❤❤

The dinosaurs are still around when you see the sky like that

Hermoso,Bishop calf.

Awesome

Felicidades yerandi que tela pases muy vien

The ponds. Nice

I'm ready to FISH

Wow

Fantastic!

That's the sky color of snow on the way!! Lovely😍😘🐈😷

That is amazing beautiful blue sky I like winn you took that picture of the amazing beautiful blue sky

Amazing picture to put up on a wall

Gorgeous photo!

Wonderful!

So beautiful!

Beautiful

Beautiful

Beautiful!!

Beautiful

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